This familiar large woodpecker and the closely related gilded flicker show flashy color in the wings and a bold white rump in flight. Yellow-winged eastern and boreal birds (“yellow-shafted flickers”) and salmon- or red-winged western and Mexican birds (“red-shafted flickers”) differ in plumage but interbreed extensively in the Great Plains, with birds showing combined or intermediate characters seen widely across the continent. Polytypic. Length 12".
All northern flickers show a bold black chest crescent, a white rump, and bright color (salmon-red or yellow) in the shafts and much of the vanes of the flight feathers and on the underwing coverts. All northern flickers are pale buffy white to rich buff below with black spotting and have brown to gray-brown backs with black barring. Adult: sexes are similar, but males have a malar mark (red in the “red-shafted,” black in the “yellow-shafted”) that is lacking in females. The yellow-shafted has a gray crown with a red crescent on the nape, a tan face and throat, and rich buff underparts with a relatively narrow chest crescent. The flight feathers and underwing linings are golden yellow. The red-shafted has a grayish head and throat with pale brown on the forecrown and loral region, lacks red on the nape, and has paler buff to creamy underparts with broader chest crescent; the flight feathers and underwing linings are salmon pink. Introgressant individuals that combine characters of both groups are widely seen; they general resemble the yellow-shafted or the red-shafted group but show 1 or more characters of the other group. Examples include a “typical” red-shafted with 1 or more yellow wing feathers and/or a touch of red on the nape, or a “typical” yellow-shafted with gray in the face or throat, 1 or more red wing feathers, and/or the absence of the red nape crescent. Many males show mixed red and black malars.
The “red-shafted” and “yellow-shafted” groups, formerly considered separate species, are easily distinguished, but identification is complicated by the wide occurrence of intergrades showing intermediate or combined characters of both groups. In an extensive hybrid zone on the Great Plains and northern Rocky Mountains from northeastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle north to Alberta, British Columbia, and southeastern Alaska, a large percentage of individuals encountered show traits of both groups; intergrades are frequently seen through the entire range of both groups. Within the red-shafted group, northwestern cafer (southern Alaska to northwestern California) is darker than remaining collaris group. There is slight size variation within the “yellow-shafted” group. Birds of the Central American highlands (mexicanoides group) and the Cuba–Grand Cayman region (chrysocaulosus group) are distinct representatives of the Red-shafted, and the Yellow-shafted groups, respectively.
The gilded flicker closely resembles the northern flicker and combines some features of the yellow-shafted (yellow wings and tail base) and the red-shafted (head pattern). The gilded flicker is smaller and shows black on the distal half of the undertail; northern flicker undertails are black on about the distal third (note that all flicker tails look mostly black from above). The crown of the gilded is more extensively brown than in the red-shafted northern, and the back is paler, more gray-brown, with narrower and more widely spaced black bars (but note that interior western red-shafted are paler backed than northwestern birds). The black crescent on the chest of the golden is thicker and more truncated on the sides. The spotting on the underparts is broadened into short bars or crescents on the flanks of the gilded; Northerns have round spots throughout the underparts.
Call: a piercing, descending klee-yer or keeew is given year-round; also a soft, rolling wirrr or whurdle in flight and a soft, slow wick-a wick-a wicka given by interacting birds. On the breeding grounds a long, long wick, wick, wick, wick series. Drum: a long, simple roll of about 25 beats over a second, often interspersed with long wick wick wick series.
Status and Distribution
Common. Breeding: found widely in open woodlands, parklands, suburban areas, riparian and montane forests. Migration: Northern populations of Yellow-shafted Flickers and northern interior Red-shafteds are highly migratory. Small flocks of migrants and even large flights are evident from late September through October and in spring in late March and April. Winter: uncommon to rare north to southern Canada (but common in southwestern British Columbia). Vagrant: the yellow-shafted is accidental in western Europe, where the 2 or 3 records represent known or possible ship-assisted birds. Yellow-shafted flickers winter regularly to the Pacific coast, though outnumbered there by hybrids and intergrades. Red-shafted is casual east to MB, western Missouri, eastern Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana; possibly also farther east, but most or all may not be pure red-shafted.
Significant population declines have occurred over much of the continent.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006